Helping a Military Friend in a Relationship Crisis

The bonds you forge through military service mean that you're there for your friends on and off the battlefield. But if a fellow service member is struggling with a crisis in a relationship - a breakup, a divorce, infidelity or other deal-breaking behavior by a loved one - it can be hard to know what to do.

What is an emotional crisis?

An emotional crisis happens when painful feelings become too intense to handle. Many different kinds of events can cause an emotional crisis, but rejection and betrayal within relationships are frequent causes. People in crisis often feel like they're falling to pieces and it's very hard for them to function at work and away from work. They need support to help them get through it all.

People in crisis may have any of these reactions or feelings:

  • Anger
  • Helplessness
  • Panic
  • Fear
  • Despair
  • Hopelessness

To ease their pain, people in crisis may self-medicate with drugs and alcohol or behave in other self-destructive ways. The risk of suicide should always be considered when someone is in crisis.

Helpful things to do

If you have a friend in crisis, it's important to reach out and offer help. Here are some positive things you should do:

  • Listen - Make it a point to listen to your friend describe what has caused the crisis and how your friend feels. Make sure to show through your response that you have some understanding of what your friend is going through. For example, you can say, "I know that's got to be tough for you," or "You must be feeling really bad about this."
  • Evaluate safety - It's important to know right away whether a friend in crisis is at risk for self-harm or of harming another person. Don't be afraid to ask about thoughts of suicide or violence. If you're concerned about someone's immediate safety, you must take action and stay with your friend until your friend is connected with the appropriate professional help.
  • Stay calm - Other people's intense feelings can be contagious, so keep in mind that your friend's crisis is not your crisis. You'll be more helpful if you maintain a calm, nonjudgmental manner.
  • Share your own experiences - It can be comforting for someone in crisis to know that others have had similar problems. You can use your own experiences to show that you understand how your friend feels. And your friend will know by your example that emotional pain can be survived.
  • Decide how much you can give to your friend - Establishing some limits on the time you spend with your friend will provide reassurance that you are not overburdened by helping. Be sure to give yourself time away from the situation to take care of your own needs. But make sure that someone else is available to be with your friend.
  • Expect to have mixed feelings - People in crisis sometimes don't respond right away to the support and reassurance being offered. This can be very frustrating. If your friend doesn't accept your help as you'd expected, don't be surprised to find yourself feeling sympathetic and annoyed at the same time.
  • Recognize the limits of your ability to help - You may need to involve others so that your friend has a support team rather than just you. It's also important to recognize that support from friends may not be enough to help through the crisis and that counseling from a professional may be needed. You may have to refocus your efforts on helping your friend accept counseling.

What not to do

In an effort to help, people sometimes do things that aren't helpful. You should avoid:

  • Giving a lot of advice
  • Talking too much rather than listening
  • Taking over the decision-making for your friend
  • Getting too emotionally involved in your friend's problems
  • Encouraging or permitting potentially harmful activities like getting drunk or taking revenge
  • Covering up for your friend by not being open or honest with supervisors and professionals trying to help

No secrets

People in crisis often ask their friends to keep things they've said or done secret. This can be tricky. It's very important to honor your friend's privacy, but you should never promise absolute secrecy.

Instead, you should offer:

  • Confidentiality - Promise to guard your friend's privacy with anyone who doesn't have a need to know what's been said or done.
  • Honesty - Tell your friend that you can't promise to withhold information that may be needed by people in a position who can help keep your friend or others safe.
  • Discretion - Be sure to let your friend know before you speak to anyone else about the situation.

When more help is needed

At some point, you may realize your friend needs more help than you can give. Depending on the situation, you should take one of the following actions to see that your friend gets help from the appropriate professional source:

  • Call 911 - If there is an emergency situation, take your friend to your unit medic or corpsman, military treatment facility or the nearest hospital emergency room.
  • Seek professional help - If you think your friend may be suicidal or is behaving in ways that put other people in danger, inform the command. Be sure someone stays with your friend at all times until in custody of the command or in the care of professionals. And, whenever possible, remove access to weapons or stockpiled medications.
  • Get counseling - If your friend isn't a risk to self or others, but doesn't seem to be getting better with support from friends, help your friend get counseling. Behavioral health providers, military chaplains, military and family support centers and Military OneSource consultants can assess your friend's needs and help make the connection with a counselor.

As you spend your valuable time and emotional reserves to help your friend, remember that with time and support, a crisis will pass for most people. Your caring and constructive actions will help recovery come quicker and easier and they may even be lifesaving.



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